The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has withdrawn as a member of the Maine Council of Churches over a recent change in how the council decides to take public stands on issues, including those affecting the LGBTQ community.

The council voted in February to end an unwritten policy that the council would not take public stands on issues unless all eight member denominations agreed. The council will now take positions based on a majority vote, said Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the council.

The Maine Council of Churches, founded in 1938, is active on social justice issues and advocates for legislation in Augusta. The Diocese of Portland has been a member since 1982.

Field characterized the decision by Bishop Robert Deeley as “fairly significant” because the Catholic church is a large denomination in Maine and also because it’s extremely uncommon to have a Roman Catholic diocese participate in a council of churches. The Catholic church is involved in councils in only four states and is not a member of the National Council of Churches, she said.

“This is the sad day for the council,” Field said.

In a letter to the president of the Maine Council of Churches Board, Deeley said he did not take the decision to leave the council “lightly or happily,” but could not continue as a member once the board decided positions on issues would be decided by a majority vote.

“As the Bishop of the Diocese I find this unfortunate, but I see no alternative. Our continuing participation could result in me advocating for two different, and even contradictory, positions,” Deeley wrote to Bonny Rodden. “What I advocate for cannot be simply determined by a majority vote. It is expected that my advocacy is grounded in the teachings of the Church. Any other position would be contrary to my responsibility as the bishop of Portland.”

The diocese will officially end its membership with the council on June 30.

Deacon Dan Sheriden, the diocese’s representative to the council, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The decision to adopt Robert’s Rules of Order followed a 20-month process of examining how decisions are made. Field said that during the marriage equality battle several years ago, a decision was made that the council would stay silent on the issue “in order to keep everyone at the table” when there wasn’t unanimity among members. Over time, that practice did not sit well with members who felt it was unacceptable not to take a stand on important issues.

“There were lots of times there wasn’t a majority vote, but nobody fussed. When it came to certain areas, in particular issues affecting the LGBTQ community, they would invoke this practice (of staying silent),” Field said. “The tension there became so difficult.”

Field said the council tried to involve Deeley in the process leading up to the change, but he instead sent representatives to talk to the council. Field and the council board sent a letter to Deeley in an effort to “leave the door open” and avoid a complete rupture of the relationship between the council and diocese.

“There’s a deep sadness, but at the same time, I feel the council still has a vital role to play in the state,” she said. “I believe we will find ourselves side by side with the diocese on certain issues like hunger and human trafficking.”

Deeley, in his letter to the council of churches, said the diocese will continue to advocate for the concerns which are the mandate of the gospel.

“As we do with the many activities of our parish communities and, of course, the tremendous good done by Catholic Charities, we will be working to serve the needs of the poor, the disadvantaged and the migrants among us, and keep before the people of our state the need to serve the common good through our care for one another,” he wrote.

Field said it is unusual, but not unheard of, for a denomination to leave the Maine Council of Churches. Years ago, the Baptists left the council when Unitarian Universalists were accepted as members, she said.

filed under: